Interview with Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman
Gail Dorfman is a Hennepin County Commissioner from the third district. Her local government service started in St. Louis Park – as a city council member from 1991 to 1995, and as mayor from 1996 to 1999. Recently, she met with Joan Pasiuk, BWTC Program Director, to talk about her vision for healthier communities.
How do you walk and bike?
I've been biking since I was young, but one thing I started doing when I was mayor of St. Louis Park, and have continued doing as county commissioner, is walking around the community. I find that walking the community gives you a different perspective. You get a view of housing and redevelopment projects and transportation projects that you miss when you just drive by. I also like to do destination walking—that often feels more purposeful to me than recreational biking and walking. So we often walk to dinner or walk to the movies. I wish I lived in a community where that was easier, but we’re getting there.
You have a lot of grassroots experience. How do we get people motivated to envision their cities and neighborhoods in new ways?
Based on my experience with Hennepin County’s Active Living initiative, as well as the work that I did in St. Louis Park during the downtown development of Excelsior and Grand, I’ve found that people love when you reach out to them at the very beginning of any project and ask, “How do we build a healthy community and what does that mean to you?”
In the development of Excelsior and Grand, people all over St. Louis Park were engaged in the planning process, particularly since we framed the debate using “livable community” principles. Raising public awareness around what it means to build healthy communities and the specific design elements that contribute to community success - creating gathering places, bike and pedestrian trails, pedestrian-level lighting - get people engaged in thinking about new ways to create their community. Building public awareness leads to greater public involvement and support for change.
I recall meeting with a group of new immigrants to St. Louis Park and asking, “Why don’t you apply to serve on city boards and commissions? Why don’t you show up at public hearings that impact projects in your neighborhood?” They said, “You never invited us.” So I think that’s a lot of it; that we don’t ask. We need to do that and we need to make it easy and welcome for people to participate.
In terms of effectiveness and impact on transportation issues, how does being a county commissioner compare with being a mayor, city council member, or community development manager?
There are two factors that I’ve observed. The first is scale. When we think about transportation projects here at the county, it’s a conversation that’s regional in scope. It’s not about a particular neighborhood or about building sidewalks in a new subdivision. It crosses neighborhoods and often crosses municipal boundaries. The scope of county services is also broader, so we try not to have transportation discussions in a vacuum. You really have to be talking about how to integrate housing, jobs, and transportation in order to build safe and healthy communities. People want choices about where to live and where to work, and transportation expands these choices and expands access. .
What do your constituents talk to you about in terms of bicycling and walking? What do they want for biking and pedestrian facilities, programs, or access?
Based on my experience with planning the Southwest light rail line, the public is way ahead of elected officials in promoting transit. We started the Southwest planning process ten years ago, and I’ve seen a sea change in public opinion over that time. When we began discussing transit from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, many folks along the corridor were skeptical and held NIMBY attitudes. They loved their trails but didn’t support mixing transit with a bike and pedestrian corridor. Now when we go out to these same communities, people ask, “How come we have to wait so long for LRT?” I get a lot of calls from people who point out gaps in the bike trails and want to know when they’re going to be filled. People applaud the regional trail system that’s coming together. They’re more than ready to see public investments in building out our regional transit and trails system.
You have strong commitment to ending homelessness. To serve the most economically disadvantaged, what should we be addressing with pedestrian and bicycle investments?
It gets back to this issue of how we build communities so people have choices that are affordable for housing and transportation and access to jobs. When we hold our project Homeless Connect over at the convention center, transportation is one of the biggest barriers for people who are homeless because they have trouble getting anywhere. The Met Council has partnered with us to provide bus tokens for people. If you can’t get to your health appointments and you can’t get to jobs, it makes it tougher to break the cycle of homelessness. We have a number of the people who are long-term homeless who, when you ask, “What do you need to help break this cycle?” they will often say, “a bicycle” or “bus tokens.”
If you could speak boldly to one person who could make a difference in creating a more walkable and bikeable Hennepin County, who should get the message and what would you say?
We need Mn/DOT to embrace complete streets. They are moving in that direction, and I think that will make a huge difference. So we’re hoping that all of our communities will move toward adopting complete streets policies, following the lead of Hennepin County as part of our Active Living initiative.
Complete streets design offers enhanced safety and access. It’s placing bus stops in better locations to eliminate accidents involving children crossing in front of busses; designing parking spaces that enhance pedestrian safety; designing access ramps and road connections that work equally well for vehicles and pedestrians. What was most interesting in a Complete Streets workshop that we held earlier this year was finding that these changes are consistent with AASHTO guidelines. So, our county engineers have embraced the complete streets policy approved by the County Board
With the new Hennepin County complete streets policy, what do you think will change? How will people in their neighborhoods see a difference or how quickly might some of this start to affect people?
We need to take these complete streets policies and start working with our Hennepin County cities to develop projects with complete street design elements, so people can see how it looks and what it means in terms of enhanced safety and improved access. Some of the things are easy to do; there’s some low-hanging fruit to begin with - painting lanes differently to make it safer to walk and to bike.
I hope to see a similar evolution to the experience with Livable Communities. Once you got projects out there for people to see, there comes that tipping point where people say, “Well, I want this for my community too.” Then the challenge becomes not to just build a few examples but to bring it to scale and roll it out. That’s our goal for complete streets – that every new transportation project and redevelopment project encompasses a complete streets analysis and implementation.
Anything else you want to say?
I think one of the things that’s important to understand, and that I sometimes get pushback on, is whether a focus on transit, complete streets, bike and pedestrian corridors can work in a cold-weather climate. People will point out that Minneapolis is not like Portland. I think one of the things that we need to understand is that this works no matter what the climate. That even has to do with how we manage snow removal, ensuring that we maintain our trails year round. We’re doing better, and as a result, we’re seeing more commuters and more recreational use of our trails year round.